Topic: Education and Child Policy

Congress Gambles with the Future of D.C.’s School Choice Program

It’s late December, so that means it’s time for members of Congress to join together and celebrate around their own massive, legislative Christmas tree–the notorious omnibus–with earmark ornaments for nearly every congressional district. Reason’s Peter Suderman explains:

The deal is made of two different elements—a 2,009-page omnibus that folds in 12 appropriations bills and calls for $1.1 trillion in spending, and a separate 233-page tax “extenders” bill that continues about $650 billion worth of supposedly-but-not-really temporary tax cuts. All together, the package is worth about $1.8 trillion. 

Many of the tax breaks in the extenders bill are the sorts of tax “cuts” that are the sort of targeted, incentives-and-behavior altering tax cuts and deductions that are best thought of as spending laundered through the tax code. (This includes the child tax credit, various business expensing provisions, and a credit to help people under 40 pay for tuition expenses, as well as credits for wind and solar power.)

Broadly speaking, that’s the sort of spending that Republicans tend to like. The other part of the package, meanwhile, contains the sort of spending that Democrats tend to like.

The Year of Educational Choice: Final Tally

This is the seventh and likely final entry in a series on the expansion of educational choice policies in 2015. As I noted at the outset, the Wall Street Journal declared 2011 “The Year of School Choice” after 13 states enacted new school choice laws or expanded existing ones. As of my last update in late September, 15 states had adopted 21 new or expanded educational choice programs, including three education savings account laws, clearly making 2015 the “Year of Educational Choice.” As I wrote previously:

ESAs represent a move from school choice to educational choice because families can use ESA funds to pay for a lot more than just private school tuition. Parents can use the ESA funds for tutors, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, educational therapy, and more. They can also save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college.

Readers will find a complete tally of the new and expanded programs at the bottom of this post, as well as a list of anti-school-choice lawsuits decided in 2015 or still pending.

Lawmakers across the nation are already beginning to consider educational choice proposals for the 2016 legislative session, including Maryland, OklahomaSouth Dakota, TennesseeTexas, and several others, but Florida will likely be the first state to expand choice next year. 

Good Bye NCLB, Hello ESSA

President Obama has just signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, ending the era of No Child Left Behind. If nothing else, that big majorities of both parties in Congress felt the need to greatly ease federal force in elementary and secondary education – at least overt federal force – is a powerful testament to the breadth of the public backlash against federally driven standardization, testing, and “accountability.” That backlash may well have hit a tipping point thanks to the Common Core, through which the federal government attempted to get states not just to have state curriculum standards and tests, but national standards and tests. In other words, Washington began to influence the specifics of what children across the country would learn.

Is the ESSA much better than NCLB? No, and it could potentially end up taking very little power away from Washington even though the language surrounding it has been all about returning authority to states and districts. But that the rhetoric about the federal role has had to change so greatly is a very encouraging thing.

Of course, the work of getting Washington to obey the Constitution by getting out of education – and of fundamentally changing the education system to one based in freedom – is nowhere near complete. But at least things may be heading in the right direction.

How Far Will Justice Kennedy Go?

Coming out of oral argument in Fisher v. UT-Austin, I have a frustrating sense of déjà vu all over again. Not simply because this is the second iteration of Abigail Fisher’s plea not to be judged by skin color, but because every time the Supreme Court takes up affirmative action both sides talk past each other and the issue is (not) resolved by a mushy baby-splitter like Justices Lewis Powell or Sandra O’Connor. Regardless of what the particular legal issues may be, one side pushes racial preferences forever (for whatever reason, currently “diversity”) and the other says never (because the way to stop racial discrimination is to stop discriminating on race). The ultimate ruling inevitably rejects the specific use of race at issue but keeps the door open for future uses – chasing some Goldilocks ideal of “race consciousness” but not too much.

Fisher II is no different. I’ll let others provide detailed exegeses of the justices’ repartee, but the bottom line is that there aren’t any surprises here. With Justice Elana Kagan recused, there’s a reduced three-justice liberal bloc staunchly in favor of UT-Austin’s holistic review (which Cato’s brief assails as being a black box that can’t pass the smell test, let alone strict scrutiny). Conversely, I heard nothing from Chief Justice Roberts or Justices Scalia/Thomas/Alito that would support the university. For that matter, Justice Kennedy – who dissented in the University of Michigan case of Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) that was Fisher’s precursor – didn’t say anything to indicate he would approve UT’s admissions program either, though at one point suggested that a remand for fact-finding might be appropriate (Later, he all but rejected that idea).

So we wait to see how broadly Kennedy wants to go. Will he merely vote to strike down the use of race in the admissions decisions complementing UT’s Top 10 program, or will he cast doubt on the use of race in educational administration altogether? Will he tighten the judicial standard of review that the Court set in Fisher I – making it essentially impossible to meet – or will he throw bones to both sides in a way that again avoids changing the status quo?

At some point, the Supreme Court has to realize that the hallowed “diversity” interest is both pretext and ephemera, and that an admissions program that uses race in a constitutional manner is a self-contradicting proposition. I don’t know if that day will come next June when Fisher is decided, but my fervent hope is that Justice Kennedy pushes his own jurisprudence further in that direction.

Competition Is Healthy for Public Schools

As more North Carolina families are using school vouchers, enrolling their children in charter schools, or homeschooling, some traditional district schools are experiencing slower growth in enrollment than anticipated. The News & Observer reports:

Preliminary numbers for this school year show that charter, private and home schools added more students over the past two years than the Wake school system did. Though the school system has added 3,880 students over the past two years, the growth has been 1,000 students fewer than projected for each of those years.

This growth at alternatives to traditional public schools has accelerated in the past few years since the General Assembly lifted a cap on the number of charter schools and provided vouchers under the Opportunity Scholarship program for families to attend private schools.

Opponents of school choice policies often claim that they harm traditional district schools. Earlier this year, the News & Observer ran an op-ed comparing choice policies to a “Trojan horse” and quoting a union official claiming that “public schools will be less able to provide a quality education than they have in the past” because they’re “going to be losing funds” and “going to be losing a great many of the students who are upper middle-class… [who] receive the most home support.” 

Setting aside the benefits to the students who receive vouchers or scholarships (and the fact that North Carolina’s vouchers are limited to low-income students and students with special needs), proponents of school choice argue that the students who remain in their assigned district schools benefit from the increased competition. Monopolies don’t have to be responsive to a captive audience, but when parents have other alternatives, district schools must improve if they want to retain their students. But don’t take their word for it. Here’s what a North Carolina public school administrator had to say about the impact of increased competition:

New Wake County school board Chairman Tom Benton said the district needs to be innovative to remain competitive in recruiting and keeping families in North Carolina’s largest school system. At a time when people like choice, he said Wake must provide options to families.

“In the past, public schools could assign students to wherever they wanted to because parents couldn’t make a choice to leave the public schools,” Benton said. “Now we’re trying to make every school a choice of high quality so that parents don’t want to leave

Wake County is not unique in this regard. As I’ve noted previously, there have been 23 empirical studies investigating the impact of school choice laws on the students at district schools. As shown in the chart below, 22 of those studies found that the performance of students at district schools improved after a school choice law was enacted. One study found no statistically significant difference and none found any harm.

Preserving Scholarship Organization Autonomy

Over at the EdChoice Blog today, Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, and I argue that the government should not force nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs) to check their values at the door as a precondition of participating in scholarship tax credit programs, as some groups have recently proposed in Georgia. In addition to violating core American principles, such as freedom of conscience, the proposed regulation would also reduce SGO effectiveness and jeopardize the financial support for tax-credit scholarships, which is certainly not in the best interest of the children who rely on them. The policy is not only unwise, it is also unnecessary:

Better Than NCLB? That’s Not Saying Much

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the intended successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, is better than the law it would replace. That is what many analysts are saying as they hail the legislation as a good step in the right direction. But let’s be honest: you couldn’t set a bar much lower than NCLB. And there are some potential problems that could make the ESSA just as dangerous as the law it would supplant.

To be fair, the ESSA is, overall, probably better than NCLB, and it may well have been the best compromise possible given political reality. Most notably, it eliminates NCLB’s uber-intrusive requirement that numerous groups of students make “adequate yearly progress” on state tests lest schools be subject to a cascade of punishments. It also tries to keep the Secretary of Education from requiring the use of specific curriculum standards such as the Common Core, though it should be noted that the Core was pushed not by the letter of NCLB, but funding from the 2009 “stimulus” and Obama administration NCLB waivers that were almost certainly illegal.  

It is in responding to the power grabs of the current administration that the ESSA may fall, in practice, very short of actually eliminating executive – much less federal – control over the public schools. The bill would keep federal requirements that states have curriculum standards – indeed, “challenging” standards – and tests, and hold schools accountable for performance on them. Moreover, while the bill says the Secretary shall not “mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision” over state standards, it also says that the Secretary must approve state accountability plans. In other words, as I’ve written before, it does not appear that the Secretary can state specifically what a plan must have, but the Ed Sec could potentially veto plans that he deems inadequate until – wink, wink – he gets what he wants.